Ed Betz, File
April 09, 2016

NEW YORK (AP) D'Brickashaw Ferguson played 10 rugged seasons in the NFL, never missed a snap due to injury and established himself as one of the best at his position.

Now comes the toughest assignment of all for the New York Jets left tackle: retirement.

The 32-year-old Ferguson made his decision to end his playing career official on Saturday in an open, heartfelt letter to fans.

''As I considered the words I would say to you,'' Ferguson wrote in the letter posted on his Facebook and Twitter pages, ''I recognize a simple truth: it just isn't easy saying goodbye.''

He first said hello to the Jets and their fans in 2006, when he was the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL draft out of the University of Virginia. Ferguson was a starter from Day 1, and he made three Pro Bowls along the way while protecting the likes of Chad Pennington, Brett Favre, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

While he was critical of the NFL in December after watching the movie ''Concussion,'' Ferguson didn't cite any health concerns in his decision to retire. Rather, a major role was no longer being able to play at the lofty standard he set for himself.

''I never wanted to define myself by the size of a potential contract, but rather by my ability to compete with the best that the game could offer,'' Ferguson wrote. ''Though I was successful in accomplishing that feat largely throughout my career, the difficulty in playing at such a level began to increase.''

When word of Ferguson's decision began to leak on Friday, many were stunned because it was believed he had a few more solid seasons left. But his play slipped a bit last season, and his contract situation made it uncertain whether he'd even be on the Jets' roster this season. Ferguson was scheduled to count $14.1 million against the team's salary cap, and the Jets were sorely in need of relief as they try to re-sign Fitzpatrick and other free agents, as well as their draft picks later this month. The team had even broached the idea of a pay cut with Ferguson.

Instead, Ferguson's retirement creates nearly $9.1 million in salary cap space, one final big play for the team from the man nicknamed ''Brick.''

''I also recognized a desire in myself to pursue other goals in life,'' Ferguson wrote, ''and because there isn't always a discernible point in professional sports where one must retire, the decision becomes a very personal one that all athletes must decide on their own.''

So, he went out on his own terms.

Ferguson thanked those who helped him ''along this journey,'' including wife Kirsten, his parents, Jets owner Woody Johnson, his current and former coaches and teammates and the Freeport, New York, community in which he was raised. He noted the ''sacrifices'' many people made to help him ''achieve my dreams.''

In a statement posted on the team's website, Johnson called Ferguson ''one of the finest players in Jets history.''

''There are a few things you hope for when you select a player fourth overall in the NFL draft,'' Johnson said. ''First, you want him to be a responsible citizen and role model. Second, you want him to be a leader in the locker room. Third, you want him to be reliable while performing at a high level for a number of seasons. D'Brickashaw has exceeded each of these expectations during his career.''

Ferguson started every game of his career, 167 in a row, including the postseason, and missed just one snap - when then-coach Eric Mangini pulled the entire offensive line on a trick play in the 2008 season finale against Miami. He never missed a practice or appeared on the team's weekly injury report.

The last player to start at left tackle for the Jets other than Ferguson was Adrian Jones in the 2005 regular-season finale against Buffalo. They quickly found a replacement, acquiring Ryan Clady and a seventh-round draft pick for a fifth-round selection, a person familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the teams hadn't announced the trade, which was first reported by ESPN.

The inexperienced Brent Qvale is also on the roster, and the Jets are expected to re-sign tackle Ben Ijalana, who served as Ferguson's backup. New York could also aim for a left tackle in the draft with the 20th overall selection, or pursue one in a trade.

''I can't speak to his entire career, but I can say how impressed I was with his approach to the game and his commitment to the team,'' coach Todd Bowles said of Ferguson in a statement. ''I knew he was going to work every day and be reliable. A true professional, he always demonstrated a desire to win, as well as the discipline to do what is necessary. From my perspective, D'Brickashaw embodied what you want from all of your players.''

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Online:

D'Brickashaw Ferguson's Twitter page: https://twitter.com/DBrickashaw

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AP Pro Football Writer Arnie Stapleton in Denver contributed to this report.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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